When I became old enough to realise that other people thought there was something wrong with my mum, my initial response wasn’t anger or shame. It was complete confusion.
I knew nothing but love, unwavering encouragement, impressions of The Muppet Show cast and singing Frank Sinatra in the car. When I won Best Dressed at my Year 11 formal, nobody could believe that my mum had made my gown herself.
The problem — to everyone but me — was that she was a single mum.
Teachers huffed and puffed when I explained that my mum couldn’t volunteer at the school fête because she didn't get home 'til 7pm. They rolled their eyes when I'd have to hustle for the latest slot at parents' evening, knowing that was the earliest time she could make. Friends' parents gave me worried looks when they asked about my parents. Headlines warned of troubled teens from single parent families inevitably falling into a life of crime. Films, TV and books only showed me families with both parents present.
Eyebrows raised even higher when they heard that my mother had a demanding career in central London. Her job as a press officer for the Metropolitan Police was never a source of upset; I was proud that she was off doing something exciting. It made her special. And she always made me feel special. To the housewives of my leafy home county, though, not only was she a single mum, she was a selfish one.
This was the mid '80s and early '90s. Margaret Thatcher’s war on single mothers was well underway. In the 1960s and 1970s, more liberal policies supporting single parents had been formulated but Thatcher was quick to put an end to that, launching a cruel campaign — heartily endorsed by the right-wing press – to shame those on low incomes and those who weren’t in traditional family units. Like the mumble of a radio left on in another room, her stigmatising of single mums (and to some extent all working mothers, despite being one herself) was a backdrop I wasn't listening to, yet plenty of others were.
Language can be a loyal foot soldier for stigma. For many, 'single mum' has come to mean irresponsibility, selfishness, laziness, failure and, chiefly, the absence of a man.
Single mothers couldn’t win. Those on governmet benefits or who worked part-time and were home to perform the unpaid labour of looking after children were lazy. Those like my mum, who worked full-time, were causing catastrophic harm to the next generation because they weren’t around to cook fish fingers at 5pm.
Thirty-odd years later, single parents still feel stigmatised, according to Victoria Benson, CEO of Gingerbread, a leading single parent charity in the UK. "At best," Benson tells me, "single parents have been forgotten by policy makers, employers, service providers, even the public, but at worst, the stigma and stereotypes persist, with many people and commentators suspicious or critical of single parents – their motives, their use of benefits, their lifestyles. The reality is very different."
Language can be a loyal foot soldier for stigma, helping to reinforce stereotypes. For many, 'single mum' has come to mean irresponsibility, selfishness, laziness, failure and, chiefly, the absence of a man. This focus on absence deliberately masks the abundance that single mothers routinely provide — running a household, looking after kids, being completely responsible for their family’s economic and emotional welfare, for everything. Some women prefer 'lone parent' or 'solo parent' but the language still points to the same thing. It reveals just how much our society prizes the traditional two-parent family. Far too often, single mums are seen for what they are not. It's a huge and harmful miscarriage of justice.
There are around 1 million single parents in Australia alone and almost 80% of them are women, with many of them on the single parent pension. "And that’s not because they’re not working," Benson says. "Before the pandemic, close to 70% of single parents were working, so the myth of single parents being reckless and spending all their money on widescreen TVs is just not true." Inadequate and unaffordable childcare provision keeps single parents trapped in low-paying work. "It is very hard to find high-skilled, high-paid jobs they are qualified for because of childcare obligations," says Benson. "Many are forced to take lower paid, lower skilled jobs."
Benson herself is a single mother. "The world is cut out for two parents," she says. "Schools, hospital visits, work, your social life... Everything is geared to a two-parent family." During the coronavirus pandemic, "if you were two parents juggling work and homeschooling, it was hard. If you were a single parent, it was impossible. But it can be a battle to make people realise you are solely responsible."
What Benson says rings true. I find it hard to convey just how much my mum did on her own. Her only downtime was a glass of wine and the newspaper on a Saturday night when my brother and I were in bed. The rest of the week was a daily three-hour round commute, picking us up from childminders, shopping, cleaning, washing, homework, dealing with all our tantrums and heartaches and successes and failures and spelling tests and cookery lessons and school reports and sleepovers and nightmares and illnesses and a nasty divorce and the bills and broken down cars she couldn’t afford to fix. And the trillions of other things I’ll never know about. She dealt with it all. Alone. When I first saw my best friend after she had her baby, she said to me, "I keep thinking about your mum. When I hear parents complain, I whisper to myself, 'But there are two of you'."
Rochelle, 28, from London, grew up watching her single mum struggle. So when she became pregnant unexpectedly at 21, she was nervous. Being a single mother of twins has been tough. "When I worked in hospitality, people didn’t understand my commitments. I’d get home at 11pm and have to pick my kids up from my mum’s. It would be a school night, they’d be tired. But those are the sorts of sacrifices I’ve had to make." To begin with, she was uncomfortable with the term 'single mum'. "People think 'scroungers', they think you’re lazy." As a Black single parent, Rochelle believes race interacts with and compounds many of those stereotypes. But increasingly, she says, "I’ve started to own it." Currently studying part-time for a master's degree, Rochelle feels she’s actively rejecting those stereotypes by trying to build her future. "I have ambitions, plans and goals," she says.
Nearly always, the stereotype that single mums are lazy and irresponsible couldn’t be further from the truth. Along with the nightmare logistics, the loneliness and the financial strain comes a staggering level of resilience, grit and bloody hard work. My greatest feminist education came not from Audre Lorde or Gloria Steinem but from watching my single mother routinely defy expectations, battle discrimination and keep going regardless. It has been the greatest learning of my life and has inspired me to be fiercely independent and live a life rooted in strong principles. Society often shames single motherhood but for many of us who know it, it is something to celebrate. Contrary to what the tabloids might suggest, it often makes me feel incredibly lucky.
"Being a single mum has been the happiest four years of my life so far," says journalist Rebecca Cox, founder of The Single Mother Edit. "I love my little family of two, having the freedom to live and parent in the way I feel is right. In the first year of single parent life, I think I felt some shame about telling people I was a single mum but now it feels I’m part of an amazing community of women who are, almost across the board, very happy and absolute powerhouses."
There is a tough winter ahead for a lot of single parents, which is why it's more important than ever to think about how we describe them and whether that language is doing them justice. When the UK's furlough scheme ends in autumn, Gingerbread expects many single parents to face redundancy. This is coupled with the British government’s decision to scrap the uplift to universal credit, introduced during the pandemic to keep families out of poverty.
The Child Maintenance Service, a British government agency that ensures separated parents both contribute financially to their child’s welfare, is notoriously shambolic and long overdue a radical overhaul. Around 100,000 children went without maintenance payments in the last quarter, according to Gingerbread. I’ve also noticed that in the ongoing conversations about the future of flexible working in a post-pandemic world, rhetoric focuses on keeping women in the workplace but it is rare to hear about the specific needs of single parents.
Attacks on single mothers have always been about the same things: class, misogyny, a threat to the status quo. Single mothers don’t need a man at the head of the household; they routinely prove that women don’t need to be home all the time to produce happy and successful children. Their existence challenges the foundations of traditional society. I was recently involved with a project where I had to ask members of a small business what qualities made them thrive at their jobs. Three separate women, without prompting, said it was because they were brought up by a single mother.
It is worth pointing out that there were more single mothers on benefits after Thatcher’s premiership than before. In part that was because of her determination to gut the welfare state, which actually made it harder for single parents to work — for example by removing essentials like free school meals for families in which the breadwinner was on a low income.
The campaign against single mums was built on lies and lazy stereotypes but its legacy has cast a very long shadow. I often wonder whether single mums are overlooked by society because, as with everything else, they just quietly get on with it and people don’t see their plight. And, of course, the vast majority of single parents are women and we know that gendered problems routinely fail to get the attention they desperately need.
I am eternally grateful for my single mum. I’ll never know how hard it truly was for my mother but I’ll never be anything other than awestruck. Despite the persistent negative narratives, my single mum, like countless others, was nothing but a success story – each and every day.
The language surrounding single mothers is inherently problematic because it defines them by the absence of a father. Our society is so hell-bent on ensuring that children have two parents that men known to be violent are given access to their children. It is written into our laws and embedded in our society that a child must have two parents, regardless of who those two parents may be. This insistence undermines just how capable single mothers are. The language seeks to define single mums by their so-called failure. It is extremely limiting. But like the most persuasive stereotypes, it is a tactic born out of fear.